Last Monday, approximatelywere called forth to help control wildfires in Northern California alongside Cal Fire and local firefighting crews. Inmate firefighters are part of California’s Conservation Camp Program, which allows incarcerated men and women the opportunity to shave time off of their sentences while also paying them a low wage. Actually, the wage is so low and the “opportunity” is essentially a “do it or languish in prison” non-choice that the program has been criticized as being a system of modern-day slavery.
Inmate firefighters were cast into the spotlight last year during the deadly Camp Fire, who were paid only $2 to $3 each day that they were on the frontlines of containing the wildfire. This source of low-wage, trained labor saves the state of Californiaeach year according to figures cited by NPR. While the Conservation Camp Program is entirely voluntary, not forced, the distinction of whether it amounts to slavery or not is blurred by the reality that the state’s economic gain is built upon the backs of the marginalized.
An episode of Frontline that aired last week — available to stream online — followed some of the over 700 inmates firefighters who helped to contain last year’s fire that destroyed Paradise. “[It’s] either do this to get home to your family earlier or be back on the yard doing something else. I’d rather get back to my family,” said one inmate, who prayed with his colleagues before facing what was one of the most terrifying fires that they had ever faced. Inmate firefighters don’t have access to water as a tool for wildfire containment; instead, they are deployed to create a “fire line,” a barrier that they create with chainsaws in hand that involves clearing anything at the edge of a fire that might burn. Clearing brush and other potential tinder is something that they are trained to do even when there are no active wildfires; creating a fire line is an emergency application of this tactic to save lives and property from being destroyed, while putting their own lives at risk.
The stigma of being an ex-con and the existing legislation around employing them prevents most of these adequately-trained and experienced inmates from ever working as a firefighter after they’ve finished serving their time. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Fire Department told the last year, “I can tell you that someone who has been incarcerated and part of an inmate hand crew has no chance of employment with this agency.” This is mainly due to the restrictions placed around formerly incarcerated people from getting their EMT licenses, which are required in order to be employed as a firefighter.
Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes of San Bernardino put forth a bill that would help to give a path forward for inmate firefighters who want to find gainful employment as a firefighter after completing their sentences. Reyes’s spokesperson told, “These inmates go through the training and then they want to go on and pursue additional training and that door is closed to them.” But, according to the , the bill was shelved due to pressure from firefighters associations. The bill is set to be reconsidered early next year.